Lafayette was but a hair’s breadth from browbeating his way to Josephine when his logical side hollered, ’Get a damn hold of yourself! You cannot start a riot because you, only just, grasped what an eye-catcher Jo is. You well know, non matter what these gents are conjurin’ in their minds, there ain’t non way in hell any of’em will act on it. They are all from decent famillies. Hell, Dick is the eldest son of Harrisonville’s Mayor. How much more respectable, could I want?’ Yet still, all he saw was a circle of wolves flashing their drooling smiles at his sister.
Comprehending how unbalanced he was becoming, Lafayette made a conscious choice to walk away. Truly, it was his only alternative, aside from starting a rather memorable brawl.
Moving on at a fast walk, he paused long enough to snatch another glass of wine from a passing tray. Shooting it down, he exchanged the empty for a new one before allowing the house slave to move on. Feeling a touch saner, he scanned the yard and spotted Suzanne Reynolds, fanning herself beneath a mimosa tree alongside the rear terrace. A sneaky smile lit his face. ’The best way to forget about Jo’s admirers is to find a chère of my own to appreciate. Course it turns the tables and makes me the wolf.’ He thought, his smile turning a touch fiendish.
Sneaking up on Suzanne, Lafayette whispered, “If you are overheated, Mademoiselle Suzanne, I would be pleased to fetch vous a dish of ice cream or a cool drink.”
His warm breath swirled across her cheek and down her neck, causing Suzanne to spring forward. Spinning, she rapped him hard with her fan, “How dare you creep up on a person like that!”
Her skin had taken on a pink blush and Lafayette found himself stricken silent in awe of her loveliness.
Her brilliant blue eyes narrowed, and then before he could react, she stepped in so close her bosom pressed up against his chest, “My goodness… Lafayette Crowe, if you ain’t rather dashin’ today.”
Her honeysuckle scent was enveloping him and peeking down; he had a full view of the plump, creamy skin contained within her bodice. Between her scent, closeness, and the view, he could barely think straight. Without fail Suzanne was usually encircled by admirers, it seemed odd that he had stumbled on her all alone; maybe even a miracle. He knew if he wanted to retain her attention, he needed to speak. Finally and with great effort he gulped out, “merci beaucoup.”
“I apologize, but I do not understand.” She said, tracing the edge of his collar where it lay open against his chest. “Are you speaking Spanish, Fate dear?”
“Excusez-moi, Suzanne, c’est le Français... uh, um, non, I mean, m’ apologies. It is French, just about a second language in my home.”
“It is quite charming.” She leaned closer, “the words all sound so very evocative as they slip from your tongue.” She said, sliding a finger in the open neck of his shirt touching his collarbone. “It is simply too sad that I am unable to understand you.”
Feeling his body temp rising, Lafayette swallowed hard, mumbling, “What I said... or was goin’ to say... was... well, it was to thank you for your compliment. However, the moment seems lost.”
“Ah, dear, perhaps we might create another moment. Hmm, Fate?” She said, her fingertip stroking along the curve of his left dimple while smiling suggestively.
He swallowed, stammering, “I.... I. . . Um.” Then with an impish grin, he whispered, “those close to me call me Lafe, but you… you may call me Fate, if you wish.” When as natural, as if he had done it a hundred times, he cupped her cheek; stroking his thumb along its smooth surface, causing a crackle of desire to flicker between them as sharply as a sheet snapping in the wind.
Staring up into his eyes, Suzanne breathed out “then Fate it is…” the tip of her tongue traced across her lower lip, in such a way, he momentarily forgot how to breathe and throwing propriety away, he bent forward, intent on kissing her wet mouth.
At that exact moment, she took a step backwards, effectively separating them. “My, my, but Fate, I surely, do not know what has come over me.” She smiled larger placing her hand on his heart. “I am here with William and he will return any moment.” Yet despite her statement, she continued eyeing him hungrily, while brazenly rubbing the palm of her hand across his breast causing the skin beneath to tighten. “See, he went for lemonade.”
“Well then, I say let William bring you a cool drink. I, on the other hand, would like to claim a dance, m’ chère. Perhaps more than one,” he said. Still intent on tasting her lips, he closed the distance she had created.
Suzanne’s eyes strayed to the grassy lawn covered with guests, then to him. Her fingers fidgeted with the ribbons on her fan as she deliberated between the two men.
Watching her moving hands, Lafayette could not discern the bulge of a ring hidden beneath her white gloves. ‘How tied to this William can she be if she is flirting with me?’ he considered. Then, with a lopsided grin, he thought, ’she has gone far beyond flirting. Hell, she is being a tease, and par Dieu; two can play at that game.’
Exhaling, he let his thick lashes droop languidly and ever so gently took hold of her chin, tilting her face to his. Holding her gaze thus, he softly toyed with her ear lobe, whispering, “Suzanne is you a sayin’, you do not mean to dance with me at all?” Bending so his lips brushed her ear, he throatily went on, “Surely, you could not be as wicked as to wound me in such a way?” Withdrawing, he let his mouth pass so close to hers the air stirred between them when she gasped. At that moment, he leaned back just enough to allow her to come to him, believing in less than a heartbeat, her lips would be his.
Instead, he felt the sound thump of a hand landing on his shoulder, “Ahem, Mister Crowe!”
All too quickly, Suzanne jumped away, shame shattering her lusty beauty. ’Chiant!’ Lafayette thought, turning to see whom this William happened to be. A part of him was not the least bit surprised to find his self toe-to-toe with William Adler. If there was ever anything of value in Jackson County, his family seemed to scarf it up. Gripping William’s hand in a fierce handshake, Lafayette looked him hard in the eyes, “Bonjour, Monsieur Adler, what incredible timing you have. See, Mademoiselle Suzanne, was just decidin’ if’n she might run away with me.”
William Adler swelled up like a stepped on horny toad, and when he shot Suzanne a look, she instantaneously went to him, taking hold of his arm.
Lafayette tilted his head, arching an eyebrow at her; prepared to flatten Adler into the dirt if she deemed it.
Instead, she raised her chin, gazing beyond him as if he were as boring as the day was long.
One corner of his mouth quirked, “And yet, I see, I was mistaken. Mademoiselle Suzanne was merely practicin’ her pleasantries while awaitin’ deeper pockets.”
Suzanne flinched as if he had pinched her and he felt no remorse. She had displayed more of her true self, in less than ten minutes, than he could learn in a month of visits. “I warn you, William; such an enchanting mademoiselle should not be left unattended.”
William smiled broadly, but there was no pleasure in the expression, “Lafayette Crowe, I am of a mind any lady should not be left unattended with the likes of you about.”
The cloaked dagger within William’s statement blatantly accused Lafayette’s honor and he knew he would be within his rights to challenge the man to a duel. Sliding his eyes once more to Suzanne, he saw her for what she was and broke into a low profound cackle. “You deux were made for each other. Have a merveilleux day, I wish you my best,” he stated, gliding away.
Strolling off with his hands clasped behind his back, Lafayette found he was beginning to feel out of sorts all over again. He supposed it was his pride feeling raw from having Suzanne toy with him. His nose wrinkled, not liking her game; also, he could not recall the last social he had attended without a lady or two on his arm. Being alone was not his style, and he had no intentions of letting this picnic be the start of a run of bad luck.
Scanning the chattering groups, he spotted a collection of ladies near the rose garden. Their fluttering dresses, bringing to mind a blush of butterflies. Hoping a few might be pleased to see him, he aimed for them. His tarnished pride was forthwith bolstered as most all the ladies turned to favor him with gracious smiles, a few even being so daring as to call out his name. Soon he was chatting, laughing, and waltzing with a bevy of County belles and as he bantered amongst them, he discovered a Miss Celia Sheldon.
Celia, a close family friend to the Youngers, was enjoying an extended visit at their home in Harrisonville. He had not realized such a charming lady had been so nearby. She was not the kind to grab a man’s eye. Not much more than the typical Missouri girl; with dark russet colored hair and modest hazel eyes. However, when she smiled, everyone else disappeared. Celia’s smile was brighter than sunshine, lending her a luster he had considered previously reserved for angels. Even more, he was tickled by the way she laughed and laughed often. It was like a brook bubbling over. It also tickled him the way she spoke her thoughts so openly.
Sitting beneath an arbor sagging under the weight of mock orange vines, he felt completely at peace with her. It was the first time he could recall being with a female and not putting forth an act of being someone he was not. Somehow, he did not feel required to be larger than life, polished, or even debonair. With her, he could be himself, just as he was with his family. It was refreshing and time slipped away as they sat together.
Along the way, he came to notice whenever her hand brushed his; a prickle of heat would erupt. That was when, with a bit of shock, he realized Celia had accomplished a task no other female had come near. She had turned the tables on him, sweeping him off his feet. Not using lust as Suzanne had done, but by finding the trail to his heart. So much so, he found himself reconsidering all he had been extolling about not needing a bride; when once more he felt a tap on his shoulder. His first thought was, ‘not again.’ Tilting his head back, he came face-to-face with Jackson; who appeared as nervous as a man cornered by a razorback boar.
“Mademoiselle Celia, it appears, I must excuse myself for a moment,” Lafayette said, kissing the back of her hand.
“Of course, Lafayette, of course.”
As he stood, her eyes flicked to Jackson and back to him, “Oh, mes excuses this here m’ ami, Monsieur Jackson Ericksen.” He smiled at his friend, “And, Jackson, I am most exceptionally pleased to introduce you to Mademoiselle Celia Sheldon.”
Jackson’s face broke into a cracked grimace that was supposed to be a smile, saying, “very nice to meet you, Ma’am.” Before throwing a quick look toward the house.
“My pleasure, Mister Ericksen, you gents go on,” she insisted, smiling her remarkable sunshine smile, “for a grave matter is obviously on your mind.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Jackson tipped his head, latching hold of Lafayette, and dragging him away.
Once out of range of hearing, Lafayette shook him off, yelping, “Hellfire, quelle?!”
Annoyance tightened Jackson’s face as he physically steered Lafayette about; jabbing his arm out toward the large wooden platform built for dancing, in the center of the lawn. “There!”
Lafayette gulped, a knot taking up residence in his stomach. “How long has this been goin’ on?”
“Too long to be measured… shall we say well-mannered.” Jackson flicked his head toward the front terrace, his long bangs flopping out of his eyes to fall slipshod alongside his face. “Lafe, it is more than your family’s name at stake. A good number of the gents are getting right bowed up.”
Lafayette counted at least twenty men posturing and glaring at the dance floor. No, not at the dance floor, but at his sister and the Union officer, she was waltzing too closely with. To top the barrel, he counted no less than fifteen soldiers mingling nearby. Most noticeably, the entire mood of the social had changed. A thick arc of tension hung in the air. Lafayette’s dark eyes returned to his sister, who was dancing gaily oblivious to the tornado building around her. “Who are they with?” He asked, not having to say, who they were, Jackson knew he was referring to the soldiers in blue.
“Part of Lyon’s Brigade. Claim to be safeguarding this section. Not positive where they are stationed. A few of our pals are leaning toward Lawrence or at the least, Aubrey.” Jackson’s jaw clenched, his eyes tightening, “They all rode in more than two hours ago and went right about making themselves comfortable. Colonel Barnett has been ram-rodding about, stating, ‘he wants all of us to proceed in a civilized manner. He is adamant there will be no form of engagement at his home.’ But as you can see, Jo’s enlightened manner is poking the bear, so to say.”
Lafayette drug a hand back through his hair, his eyes following Josephine as she spun across the dance floor, he knew something must be done and fast.
“Not your day, is it, Bub?” Jackson said, clapping his pal on the shoulder.